A year ago today I was camping in some pretty dire conditions. I was one of three staff members in charge of keeping a group of 8 emotionally unstable teenage boys alive during one of the biggest storms Oregon has seen in years. One experience comes to mind:
I’m awoken at 3:00 A.M. by one of the boys. “Staff! Staff! I can’t breath.”
I roll over and groan. (Totally the way to handle a potentially life-threatening emergency.) This particular individual had just had a panic attack around 11:30 that night and so my response was, “OK, just take some deep breaths, bud. Everything’s fine.”
Ten seconds pass. “Hey, I’m still having a tough time breathing.”
Another voice: “Me too! I’m having a hard time breathing, too!”
And another: “I can’t breathe either. What’s going on??”
Oh! I’ll bet that the four feet of fresh snow on everyone’s tent might have something to do with it. Holy crap! These kids really can’t breathe. Time to shovel them out.
This was one experience out of dozens. Anyone who has been exposed to Wilderness Therapy (either client of guide) knows that it’s the real deal. These kids are out in the elements anywhere from 1-3 months at a time – rain, wind, snow, or shine. The idea is simple: unplug from the “default world” and get back to basics. Surviving in the wilderness builds confidence; nature helps people develop a sense of place and belonging in a world gone mad.
I’ve been a wilderness guide for a long time now. I consider myself extremely blessed to be able to guide people for days on end through remote wilderness. When you take people out of their comfort zones you get to see what people are really like when they don’t get their fix, be it the internet, alcohol, or the sound of traffic (seriously some people can not go to sleep if they only hear crickets).
The transition away from the default world can be a rocky one, but after those first two nights of sleeping on the ground, something happens. It’s like we’ve realigned with an ancient memory encoded in our blood and we realize this is the real world. Afterwards, it’s the coming back to civilization that takes some adjustment.